What makes a room ‘romantic’?

Story highlights

It can be difficult to recognize a romantic room at first glance

Romantic decor engages the senses and makes its occupants look good

Modern interpretations of Victorian interiors inspire romantic nostalgia

CNN  — 

It’s Valentine’s Day, and you want that dining room, that study – that bedroom – to feel romantic.

Even interior decorators don’t tell clients, “‘Romantic?’ Oh, I got it, you just sit here and I’ll make a romantic room,” said Karin Tehve, associate chairperson of interior design at the Pratt Institute.

That’s because in decorating, there’s no such thing as a “romantic style,” she said. There isn’t a formula for a romantic room or a checklist of the most breathtaking features.

But romantic rooms do exist, she said. They’re the spaces that speak to another time or place, or that help you forget about your iPhone, the bills or the socks you lost in the laundry. Romantic decorating, she said, is less about scattering some heart-shaped objects around a room than about “the idea of making a particular place where a loved one can feel special.”

So this month, as you leaf through the Valentine’s Day issues of home decor magazines featuring “romantic” homes, don’t expect the romance to jump at you with flowers and diamonds.

That’s because the romance is in the details, said Veranda magazine editor-in-chief Clinton Smith.

“A romantic room today is one that slowly reveals itself over time,” Smith said. “It might not hit you immediately, but the longer you’re in a room, you’ll start picking up on little details that might not be really obvious at first glance.

“As with a lover, a romantic space will definitely seduce you and often sweep you off your feet, or at the very least take your breath away.”

Start with candlelight

That’s Smith’s criteria to call a room “romantic” in Veranda, but he’s the first to admit that his magazine’s photos of idealized interiors lose some luster when they’re rendered in two dimensions.

In a magazine, it’s hard to capture the warm embrace of good lighting, he said – and the best for a romantic room is candlelight.

“There’s a reason for the stereotype about candlelight being romantic,” said Tehve of the Pratt Institute. “It’s extremely flattering.”

Interior designer, author and scholar Thomas Jayne said it’s the designer’s job to make the person occupying the room look good.

“I used to work with Sister Parish. She famously lined the lampshades with pink lingerie so they would give off a flattering glow,” he said.

“No one looks appealing, romantic or attractive in an uncomfortable situation. Harsh lighting and blank, white walls is proof of that point.”

Pay attention to details

Romantic rooms help people feel good, too, said Veranda’s Smith. That’s hard to get across in photographs, but there are clues, he said.

“Never underestimate the power of $10 roses at the grocery store,” Smith said. “It’s those little things that really let the other person (someone you’re in a relationship with or just a house guest) know that they’re important.”

Romantic rooms elicit emotion, he said, and the return of farm tables in dining room decor inspires communal feelings.

“I think a dining room can be the most romantic room in the house. And by romance I don’t mean just a couple dining together, but when they’re having friends over.” He added: “It’s this sense of feeling special, like you belong and making a connection with one another.”

Tehve agreed: “I often think about where food is being served. (Where) we take care of ourselves as sensuous beings and not just brains. Those rooms can be very romantic.”

Conveniences also make people feel good in a room, Jayne said. Thoughtfully placed surfaces to set down a drinking glass, a small box of a loved one’s favorite chocolates and a cashmere throw to defend against chilly weather are all little ways a designer or a homeowner can lend a room some romance.

“A little bit of sentiment is important,” for a room to feel romantic, Jayne said. “Make an effort. Have some bonbons.”

Let a room take you far away

Getting transported far away by a room, Jayne said, is also romantic. “Think of French doors opening to the garden, the view of the ocean, the mountain cabin; I think it’s more about the actual location than the decoration a lot of the times.

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    “Even mad passion in a hayloft is considered romantic.”

    A room that transports a person to another time can also feel romantic, Smith said.

    “It definitely slaps you in the face if you walk into a 19th century Victorian castle,” he said. “With shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ (Victorian) design and decor has been romanticized.”

    The Victorian era was the first time that homes became truly private, Tehve said, because people left their homes to work during the Industrial Revolution. Decor that pays homage to Victorian style reflects centuries of tradition but can still work in a modern setting, she said.

    Despite all the hallmarks of a romantic room, there has to be room for the person and their preferences, of course.

    “‘What is romantic?’ is an extremely important thing for all of us to consider,” Jayne said. “It makes the essence of life. It furthers our relationships. It is an extremely good thing to have a sense of history and a sense of sentiment and a sense of romance.”

    What’s the most romantic room you’ve ever been in? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter @CNNLiving or on CNN Living’s Facebook page.